Don’t tell me about admirable moms


A couple of months ago, two people sent me the same thing: A womens’ magazine was looking to interview a woman who was doing a good job balancing kids and a freelance career.

“You should respond to this!” said one of the emailers. “This will be great publicity for your book!” said the other emailer.

Articles that talk about women doing a good job balancing work and kids make me sick.

Annoying articles like this are everywhere. Here’s one. It’s about a woman in the military who is also a mom. Right away my radar goes up — lives of miliatary families are not exactly stable for the kids. The title of the article is “Admirable Mom”. I find this title despicable because who is the arbiter of “admirable” when it comes to this?

And why do we need to admire the moms we write about? Why do the women who are successful in work also have to be successful in the kid department? You know what? Most women who have a full-time job and a partner with a full-time job are having a really hard time holding things together. And the longer the hours, the worse it is.

But the bigger issue is why do we have to rate the job people are doing in their parenting? It’s an impossible job. Most people are making errors every day, and no one has any idea which of the infitinite amount of errors we can make are the really bad ones.

There is no rating system for parenting. The parents of kids at Harvard might like to believe that this means success, but it doesn’t. There is no measure. The parents of the kids saving starving kids in Africa also do not get to go to the top of the parenting chart. Becuase there is no chart.

So everyone should please shut up about the articles about women who “do a good job balancing work and family”. What does that mean? Good job? And what about that it’s all self-reported? What sane woman is going to speak on record about her career and say that she is not doing a good job with her kids?

Do your kids love you? Do you love your kids? That’s all there is. It’s very frustrating, in light of intricate and predictable quantified system of rating ourselves and others in the workplace. A study by Stanford DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford Business School shows that people think about work while they watch their kids soccer game. No surprises there. The study says that people are computing their billable hours and time lost for the day. This makes sense to me becuase math problems about work are easier than interpersonal problems about family.

Work is measurable and parenting is not. Bob Sutton, also a Stanford professor, quotes a study that shows people like things that are measurable. We like to know how we’re doing. We like to have a goal and meet it and know we’ve done a good job. We like acknowlegement. There is none of this during an afternoon hanging out with your kids.

The parents whose minds are not wandering to work are parents who don’t have engaging work. Because any type of engaging work is easier than being with kids. I’m not saying don’t spend time with your kids. I spend every day from 1 – 8pm with my kids. And even later than that if I don’t do a good job during bedtime negotiations. I choose that. But it’s hard.

And I would never hold myself up as a role model for parenting becuase the idea of ranking parents is absurd. Besides, I’m like that dad who can’t keep his mind from work. When my kids are really difficult, sometimes I’ll escape to my web metrics report. There are not official kudos for getting through another round of superhero wars. But there’s no arguing with the graph that shows a good day for blog traffic.

You know what? It’s stressful to have a career and kids, but also it’s stressful to have just kids. So the best you can do is try to not bring the workplace stress home with you. becuase that’s really realy bad for kids. They notice. But sometimes, let’s just all be honest, work is a way to alleviate some of the stress at home.

So here’s my advice: Don’t have too much stress at work, don’t have too much stress at home. And don’t have the hubris that makes you want to respond to one of those journalists looking for an admirable mom. If you want to be ranked, go to work. There are not rankings for parents. That’s what makes parenting so hard.

31 replies
  1. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Parenting is a perfect example where you need to practice satisficing (being good enough) rather than maximizing (being perfect). (For a lengthier discussion of satisficing versus maximizing, see “The Paradox of Choice”:

    Some people consider me an “admirable” father because work sane hours, handle all the transportation for the kids, do most of the cooking, and shun business travel as if it were a contract with the Devil.

    Side Note: I have a lot of friends who are extremely successful in business and are fathers. They feel the strain of trying to balance constant travel with being a dad. One recently commented to me about the subject, “I feel like the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling pot. It didn’t seem so bad when I first started, but now I’m definitely getting cooked.” I would argue that constant business travel is one of the most stressful thing for dads. For more on this, you can check out my post on being a global business leader:

    Yet does that make me a good father? I could do all those things, and still be a lousy father who constantly berated his kids and put them down. (I’m not saying that I am–obviously I try to give them unconditional love–I’m just making a point).

    Ultimately, I think you judge parenting by asking yourself three yes or no questions:

    1) Am I a non-abusive parent? That is, do I avoid verbally or physically abusing my children?

    2) Do I give my kids unconditional love in a way that they recognize? That is, if someone asks them if Daddy loves them, do they unhesitatingly and joyfully answer yes?

    3) Are all of us (including my wife and kids, not just me) happy with the way our family runs? Because it the end, it doesn’t matter if I think I have the perfect life if the other people who share it are miserable.

    If you answer “Yes” to all three of those questions, consider yourself a good parent AND STOP COMPARING YOURSELF TO OTHERS.

  2. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I love Chris’s three questions. They’re what’s important here — not what other parents do. Every family is different and people, especially kids, are very adaptable. There are a variety of right ways to parent and be a family.

    The one other question I would ask is whether my husband and I provide a degree of consistency and routine for our son so he knows that he can depend upon us. This doesn’t mean rigid routine, just certain daily events that usually happen in a predictable manner (pick up from daycare at the same time, dinner and a bath at the same time, a consistent bedtime and nap time, etc.) He seems much happier when these few basic events happen on schedule during the day.

  3. Jeremy
    Jeremy says:

    Love this post. Spot-on.

    “Because any type of engaging work is easier than being with kids.”

    This is certainly true for me, but I don’t hear many people say this out loud. I guess the assumption is that if you say it’s harder, you’d rather not spend time with your kids. When I found the transition to parenthood difficult, I realized that there were all kinds of taboos about admitting that your kids were terrible roommates (among other issues). I loved my kids, but I didn’t have any qualms about acknowledging how difficult it was to have all of my needs and wants suddenly superceded.

    That said, I wonder if this is as true for everyone. Are there actually these mythical parents who find parenting easy, natural, and more engaging than regular “engaging work”?

  4. kathy k.
    kathy k. says:

    I’ve heard it said that if you become rich and famous, but your kids are screwed up, what good is being rich and famous – your kids are still screwed up. I figure the collalary is that if your kids turned out fine, what does it matter that you’re not rich and famous – your kids turned out fine. You’ve done a good job on your most important job.

  5. Cara
    Cara says:

    Someone needs to make a bumper sticker that says, “Parenting is not a competitive sport.”

  6. Peggy
    Peggy says:

    Another great post! I like this part:

    “The parents whose minds are not wandering to work are parents who don't have engaging work. Because any type of engaging work is easier than being with kids.”

    It’s so true! I LOVE being with my children and have planned my life to be able to be with them a lot. But I would by lying if I didn’t say that my work was easier. It’s definitely more joyful to be with the kids, but work is easier.

    Linda Hirshman (Author of “Get to Work”) makes a similar point:

    “And my favorite point Hirshman makes is that of the women she interviewed, those that had been involved in satisfying work that they were good at/rewarded for were more likely to return to work after children were born. They did not see their work as diminishing their children's quality of life. On the other hand, women who had never really enjoyed their work or experienced success in their career were far more likely to grab on to the importance of their domestic role as a means of escaping a situation they never enjoyed anyway. If you haven’t experienced the upside of having a career, then your critique of the epxerience is necessarily skewed and shouldn’t be a benchmark for other women who are weighing their options. Some women even referred to the corporate world as "soul destroying." Never mind the fact that their escape comes at the expense of a man continuing to work in that very same "soul destroying" environment. How can that possibly be good for the children?” See more here:

    Hope you are enjoying the snow! :-)

  7. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    Penelope you mention that an afternoon with the kids doesn’t provide acknowledgement, or the satisfaction that you’ve met a goal. But I disagree. I think many parents have explicit or implicit goals like caring for their kids’ health and safety, and educating them, and having fun with them. And your kids give you a performance review on those goals every day, albeit in ways we might not recognize.

  8. Sujatha
    Sujatha says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I’m tired of reading everyday about these magical moms. I enjoyed many of the above comments. I’d like to add that while frequent business travel is very disruptive, I like them once or twice a year. So much time to yourself, no cooking and house work to come home to, plus if it is an interesting destination, I enjoy some sight seeing too.

  9. David
    David says:

    As Chris Rock said, if you’re raising a daughter and she ends up on the brass pole, you screwed up as a parent. What else really matters?

    There seems to be some sort of cult of magical moms who ‘balance’ it all. What they really do is, and this is from the standpoint of one who deals with them in the workplace, is cut corners.

    Real life case in point – a woman I know, married, mother of two boys, 9 and 11, got a new role as the manager of an $80 million account for an IT company. The client is about 30 minutes from her home…she’s already decided she can visit the client site once a week and since it’s in a ‘bad neighborhood’ she can leave by 3 PM.

    What’s up with that? Is that the way to build effective relationships? IMHO that’s shorting the client and her new team. What is that doing to the childrens’ emotional development? Only their kids’ therapists will know decades from now.

    * * * * * *

    As soon as you say “married” and then you don’t tell us what the husband is doing, my alarms go off. Why do you think it is okay to report how the wife runs her life, and say the kids will be in threapy, but not report what the husband is doing? Is he staying home with the kids so she can work? Why not? And why do you hold her solely reponsible for the kids?


  10. David
    David says:

    Fair question that deserves an answer…quite simply, I don’t know about his schedule.

    More interestingly, you focused on the kids portion of my comment, not the work place issues and what one might be expected there.

    I don’t believe the ‘magical mom’ issues are all about how folks balance child care responsibilities. When men and women come to the workplace, they owe something to the organization that pays them and to their co-workers.

  11. Suchismita
    Suchismita says:

    I really liked your article because it is a very realistic take on the whole work life balance issue. Two important points that I took away were that (a) there are no benchmarks for parenting and (b) office life is usually easier than being with kids.

    But does balance really exist at all ? As a mother who works full time in the banking industry (in India) with a husband who works in investment banking, I dont see too many options for “balance” – it is largely an “either/or” choice and each of us then makes those choices.

  12. Natalia
    Natalia says:

    Being with my son is much easier than being at work for me. I guess I’ve never cared that much about structure and schedules and only abide by them when it is necessary, as it is at work. My job can be stressful, as most are, but I am lucky that when I leave my workplace I am done for the day. I can relax and play(and cook and clean) and enjoy the company and hilarity that a four old can provide. I am a single mom so there are many things to balance. Enjoying life with what you have right now is number one. I don’t care what grade someone might bestow on me if they could. My son says I’m the best.

  13. LaDawn
    LaDawn says:

    OK, so I’m a bit slow. I only found this post after you linked to it on your latest post. i just wanted to say, AMEN sista! There are days when I am bad at my job and bad at being a mother. Some days I do ok at both. Most days I do one well and the other slips. That’s the best that can expected. And this post is one of the honest I’ve ever seen! Wish I’d read it sooner!

  14. Jerry
    Jerry says:

    A bad day with the kids beats even the best day at work. In 10 years work won’t remember ( or care) what you did but the kids will remember.

    • Alora
      Alora says:

      I would be careful of that assumption. The thing I most remember about my mother is that she tried to hide from the things that she didn’t like about her life by being a mother. Instead of genuinely being happy as a parent, she was desperate at being unhappy in her life and not having an identity she was happy with that wasn’t entirely defined by either her husband or kids. Twenty years after her death, the lesson I learned most from my mother is that if you can’t find some way to make yourself happy — whether it’s work or anything else — trying to hide out from your failures in life by focusing exclusively on parenting doesn’t work. It doesn’t make you happy, and your kids know you are living a lie.

  15. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    Wow! I found you from the “Real Mom Meme”. Thanks for an eye-opening viewpoint!

    I think your most poignant line is “Because any type of engaging work is easier than being with kids.” And here I was feeling guilty for thinking exactly that!

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